I believe a president — Republican or Democrat — almost always deserves to have the cabinet that he wishes, with the bar very, very high to oppose his choice. Thus, there should be heavy presumption that President Obama’s reported nominee for secretary of Defense, former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, should be confirmed by the Senate.
Whether senators agree or disagree with Hagel’s past positions — on the Iraq war (for the authorizing resolution, then turned against the war), declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a “terrorist organization” (against), engaging with Iran in negotiations more aggressively (for), engaging with Hamas in seeking a peace agreement in the Middle East (for) — these positions are known to the president, and he still has decided to nominate Hagel for the post.
In any event, President Obama’s policies will be carried out by the new Secretary Hagel, not former Sen. Hagel.
But: Hagel owes it to all Americans, not just to American Jews, to do more than apologize for use of the expression “Jewish lobby” in communicating his concern about its power.
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He must understand, first, that there is a difference between Jews who support Israel and the “Israel lobby.”
To suggest that there is a “Jewish lobby” is not only inaccurate, it is highly offensive to the American Jewish community.
First, as to the inaccuracy of the expression, here are a few indisputable facts:
Fact: There are many, many non-Jews who support Israel.
Fact: Most Americans, Jews and non-Jews (polls consistently show over 70 percent nationwide) support Israel because they see it as being in the U.S.’s national-security interests to do so — and because Israel is a democracy like ours, committed to the legal protection of civil rights, gay rights and human rights, including the rights of the more than 1 million Palestinian Israeli citizens.
Fact: Some of the strongest supporters of Israel are among evangelical and conservative Christians.
Fact: There are many Jewish Americans, including this writer, who are sometimes critical of the Israeli government’s policies and who strongly support a two-state solution, consistent with Israeli security interests.
As to why so many American Jews are highly offended by Hagel’s use of the expression “Jewish lobby,” if he doesn’t understand its historical association with virulent anti-Semitism and the scurrilous libel of “dual loyalty” used by anti-Semites against Jews, then I would ask him the following question:
Have you ever used the expression the “Catholic lobby” when describing pro-life lobbyists? If you did, would you understand why Catholics would be offended by that expression — because many Catholics are pro-choice and would be offended for you to invoke an expression describing their religion rather than their views on the abortion issue? Do you recall how offended John F. Kennedy was at the notion that he would have dual loyalty as president — to America and to the pope — a charge JFK vigorously denied and considered to be emblematic of anti-Catholic bigotry?
So if Hagel is confirmed as Defense secretary — and as of now, I believe he should be — I hope he does more than make an apology on the use of the “Jewish lobby” expression (as he already has regarding his anti-gays-in-the-military comments in past years). He needs to show that he understands, first, why he is factually wrong to describe a “Jewish lobby”; second, he needs to show greater sensitivity to the American Jewish community because he understands that expression evokes anti-Semitism through the ages.
On policy, he should explain why he opposed describing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization even though it is a matter of record that they have financed terrorist operations against civilians in Israel; and why he favors Israel’s negotiating with Hamas, despite Hamas’s refusal to renounce terrorism and the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.
I believe Hagel is a decent man, with an outstanding record of integrity as U.S. senator and military service as a patriot. He should address his use of the “Jewish lobby” expression directly and candidly — not only to reassure American Jews but also to clear up doubts that could hinder his effectiveness as Secretary of Defense.
Lanny Davis is a regular weekly columnist for The Hill. In 1996-98, Davis served as special counsel to President Bill Clinton. He attended Yale Law School with Hillary Clinton in 1969-70 and has remained friends with her ever since. He is the author of the book, "Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping With Crises in Business, Politics, and Life," (Simon & Schuster March 2013). Follow him on Twitter at @LannyDavis.